VANCOUVER, BC — Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday that the strike at Port Metro Vancouver, orchestrated by about 1,400 container truckers, is unacceptable.
“It is not acceptable to have relatively small numbers of people blocking what is important trade for a range of British Columbian and Canadian business,” Harper said.
About 1,000 drivers, who are part of the United Truckers Association, walked off the job on Feb. 26 in protest of long wait times at the port facilities. They want the port to streamline its operations or pay truckers an hourly wage. (They are currently paid by the load, of course).
Then on Monday, another 300 unionized container truckers joined the protest. They also want increased pay rates that are enforced and standardized across the trucking sector to prevent undercutting.
Paul Johal, president of the Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association, a branch of Unifor that represents the unionized port truckers, disagreed with Harper: “We’re not blocking anybody. We’re not stopping anybody. We’re just protesting outside the port.”
But the protest has disrupted operations at the port, preventing the majority of normal truck volume from getting out.
The entire North American lumber supply chain is affected, according to Chris Sainas, president of the B.C. Wholesale Lumber Association, the organization that represents 28 wholesale lumber sellers.
CN Rail has told its forestry customers it is closing its major reloading and distribution centre in North Vancouver to new deliveries because of the buildup of export inventories and his members are running out of places to store lumber, Sainas told the Vancouver Sun.
Harper was in Vancouver returning from a signing of a new free trade agreement with South Korea and commented: “We’re obviously concerned about this particular labour dispute, because we have got to have major trade, transportation corridors operating.”
Much of B.C.’s lumber exports to Asia is shipped in containers and is inevitably affected by the strike.
Conifex, a company that exports close to 50 percent of its product to Asia is among the companies now blocked from shipping through Port Metro’s four container terminals. They’re looking at other options such as diverting export cargo to U.S. terminals, but “there’s a lot of costs associated with this,” said Ryan Lepp, the company’s sales manager for North America.
“Holding inventory at mills costs money and shipping from alternate locations costs money,” Lepp said.
“The impact of truckers walking off the job is in the order of about $885 million per week,” said Port Metro Vancouver President and CEO Robin Silvester. “Goods are not moving and that is bad news for consumers and businesses.”
Local wineries and other businesses also have their products stuck at the port and are worried that this strike may mirror a similar one from 2005, which lasted 47 days.
“If you had a dark container on top of the pile, then a lot of your wine and beer got cooked,” said Robert Simpson, general manager at Liberty Wine Merchants, the largest chain of private wine stores in Western Canada.
Besides calling the strike unacceptable, Harper said he cannot get involved because the labor dispute falls under provincial jurisdiction.
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